Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Big Horn 100: 2018 “Sweet are the uses of adversity” William Shakespeare (and Alex Ezell)

This is a long one, so grab a couple cups of coffee and settle in. Spoiler alert: It’s a long one because I’ve never had to run for over 30 hours before. If you’re just looking for race beta, skim on through. I’ve made some notes at the end for you.

To really capture my experience at Big Horn 2018, I need to circle back a bit. I started running in grad school for no reason, really, other than to spend time with my friend Reeve. He and I had spent lots of time exploring the mountains in kayaks. The luster of chasing waterfalls went away for me after I had an accident, caught a bad bounce, and got away with a minor warning from the powers that be. Still, I wanted to hang out with Reeve and explore. I started following him on runs in the mountains. Through running long distances, I got to explore all I wanted with the most likely worst possible outcome being just a long, cold, night in the woods. Good deal. Then, I found running 100s when I did the first Always Brothers run back in 2011. Since then, I’ve found a great running community, started actually trying to “race” a bit, and- most importantly- started a family. A sea of change over the last decade brought me to the start line of Big Horn, but one constant has been a desire to explore both nature and my own limits.

Chris, Sean, and I took off for Wyoming on Wednesday morning. A quick pause in the race report (I know, I know I have only finished one sentence about the actual race but bear with me) is in order to thank Ginger for encouraging me to do Big Horn and making sure I knew that she and Paul would be just fine while I was gone. So, thanks! I love you.

Ok, back to the race story. We landed in Billings, drove over to Sheridan, got checked into hotel, and checked out start line for the race. Thursday was a little course recon and the normal drop bag prep, drop off and packet pick up.

Big Horn has a 10 am start, which is so civilized. Really, a Friday morning start is nice. Yup, everyone has to run into the night, but only one. And you can actually get a full night of sleep before the race. And breakfast. Go to Bagels and Beyond. We did. Every day. That place is amazing!

The race brief was at 8 am. We heard about some course details, hung out, and then took the shuttle to the start.

It was all very well organized in terms of transportation. The only bummer was that it was hard to tell where the front of the pack was because the whole field was choked in this canyon.

 I was psyched to be running with my friend Bryan Jennings from NC. Bryan is an awesome guy, a great athlete, and someone I’ve known and admired since the old kayaking days. Bryan and I ended up lined up pretty far back in the field and we spent the first 7 or 8 miles in a conga line that was moving pretty slowly up the mountain. No matter, though, it’s a 100 miler and saving a little energy at the start was fine by me. And Bryan was cool with it as well. We just passed the time catching up, sharing thoughts about our motivations and friends we miss, and just generally enjoying the time to be together. I also took the chance to pick his brain on being a good dad- since he has a little more experience than I do in that area.  

The first climb from the start to Dry Fork Ridge Outound (13.5) was smooth and easy. I did develop some hot spots on both heels, which was odd for me. I rarely have blister problems.  I had made the mistake of talking about this before the race, so I’m sure this was just karma coming at me like a spider monkey.

Other than, Karma, I’m not sure what the problem was since the course was dry at this point, but I changed socks on the side of the trail and just kept rolling. The weather was cool and cloudy. Not bad at all. I chased back easily once I had changed socks since we were at the top of the ridge and off the narrow single track. I caught up with Bryan and we cruised into Dry Fork, grabbed food, filled bottles, and rolled on out. I was still pretty optimistic about going sub 24 even though we lost a little time in the conga line. I figured- hey, it’s energy in the bank.

We kept rolling along and chatting through Cow Camp (19.5) as the weather started looking a bit sketchy. Bryan had to stop to answer nature’s call a few minutes later, so we separated. Then, the thunder, lightning, and hail joined the party. The hail got pretty rough for a few minutes, so I ducked under some bushes and pulled out my jacket to keep me warm and ease the sting of the marbles hitting my head and arms. But, I got moving quickly again because I didn’t want to get cold or expose myself to the storm (lightning) and longer than necessary. Getting through the meadow and Bear Camp (26.5) and down “the wall” to Sally’s Footbridge (30) was the smart play. So, I kept moving. The weather had already turned the trail going down the wall to a muddy, slick mess. I ran down joking with a few people about the conditions.

I came into Footbridge (30) about 1.5 hours slower than I was hoping. But, I had only lost a little time in the second section, and I was sure I could make it up. Even still, I had figured a little cushion in my sub 24 pace plan and would have been stoked with 25 or even 26 hours anyway. I was picking up Chris here, and he is always great at keeping me moving. Given the mud situation and the developing blisters, I decided to take a little time to get dressed for the weather that had arrived and tend to my feet. The stop was a little extended (25 minutes or so), but time well spent. I cleaned my socks, put on fresh clothes, and off we went.

The first 7-8 miles from Footbridge to Spring Marsh were actually great. It just rained off and on a little. In our normal fashion, Chris and I just kept cranking and enjoying the scenery.

There were some really fun, sketchy bridges to cross and the footing was pretty good.

I was still SURE we’d be back at Footbridge by 2 am, and sub 24 or 25 was a real possibility. The mud didn’t return until we went through Spring Marsh (40). Then, things got REAL. Like ,really real. The 8 miles (9 by most counts) from Spring Marsh to the turnaround at JAWS (mile 48ish) was a muddy slip and slide. A lot like, as Kirby said later about “the wall”, running on Vaseline.

We actually didn’t get into JAWS until 11:30. 11:30 pm. 13.5 hours after the start. It was raining. I was cold, muddy, and hungry. So, we took more time than I would have liked here too. The volunteers were great and the tent was like a warm MASH unit.

I knew that sub 24 was out the window and the only way to ensure a finish would be to get warm and dressed for the race we were having, which was going to be impeded by mud that was not allowing much actual running. So, we spent 30 minutes getting me into a warm base layer and dry jacket. Then, we took off into the night.

The return from JAWS to Sally’s Footbridge was just a slog. Every time I tried to get rolling in the muck, I fell or nearly fell. Once, I even went headfirst into a tree. I told Chris, “I don’t have a concussion.” He said, “well, that’s good. It wouldn’t matter anyway. You’d just have to walk out of here with it.” I laughed. He laughed. We kept looking for chances to run and make up some time. There weren’t many.

We came into Footbridge at 6:30 am. Let that sink in. 6.5 hours to go 18 miles. Mostly downhill. What the hell?! How is that even possible? I don’t know if the mud created some kind of time warp or something. But that’s what it took. And, it wasn’t like we were just giving up and slogging. I was still trying to salvage a decent time for the race. Chris took my shoes to wash them off and then happily handed me off to Kirby and Sean who got me cleaned up, fed, and ready to bring this thing home.

Sean and I took off up “the wall” around 7:00. Let THAT sink in. 6 hours slower than I’d planned. And we were only 66 miles into the race.

But, at this point I was not worried about the clock anymore. Of course, I had come out the race hoping for the “perfect” day I would need to run sub 24 on this course. I trained hard. I was ready. But, it didn’t happen. I was OK with that.

The weather was the weather. The course was the course. I had also come out wanting an adventure, wanting to get back in touch with why I started doing these long runs/races anyway. Mother nature was giving me that chance, I was into it. Let’s party, Mama N.

Don’t get me wrong. I was disappointed. I was cold. My feet were shredded from the mud. It sucked. I was suffering. I actually had to wash my bib off, so the AS captains could read it.

But it was an agreeable suffering, which is a concept that Kirby called me one day a while ago to chat about when he came across it in a mountaineering book. It was the good kind tribulation. The kind where you’re doing something you love, but you are just laid bare. You have one task and keeping up any pretense just isn’t possible. Neither is avoiding your reality. I’m lucky to have chances like this. Most people never do, and I think we can all benefit from that kind of self-study. You have lots of time to think about who you are, what you do,  why you do it, and if you’re really living. I am. And, I am eternally grateful for that.

So, Sean and I charged up “the wall”—by “charge” I mean: We dug our poles into ground and pulled ourselves up with our arms while our feet kept slipping out from under us. The rain came and went. The mud stayed. Averaging 30 to 35-minute miles up the mountain, I did actually start worrying about the clock. Sean, I’m sure, was worrying too. But, he kept quiet about it and just entertained me with crewing stories from the night.

We had fun laughing at our plight. But, inside I was stressed. Even with hours in the bank ahead of the cut offs, they could become a problem if we could not get back on a decent pace. I had invested way too much time training, heart, and time away from Ginger and PT to not get a finish at this race. I wasn’t going to let that happen. I owed it to myself, my crew, and most importantly my family to finish.

Things went this way—pushing as hard possible and using our poles to climb as our shoes betrayed us—for a couple of hours. Somewhere between Bear Camp (69.5) and Cow Camp (76.5) the footing got better. Tired but motivated, I pushed the pace to claw back some of the time we’d lost. Sean, kept me laughing and kept laughing AT me as a I fell face down in the mud a couple of times. Then sun even started to come out.

We came into Dry Fork Ridge Inbound (82.5) tired, but in good spirits. We had passed a ton of people between Cow Camp and Dry Fork. But, to be honest, I was no longer racing. And, I was very happy about it. The climb out of the canyon, the weather, the hours and hours, and the opportunity to reflect helped me find some real happiness in the situation. Here I was in the beautiful mountains with one of the best friends anyone can have. Sure, we could push it, charge over the final climb, and bomb that last 18 miles to the finish. In spite of it all, my legs felt pretty strong. But there was always the reality that my body could just say: ENOUGH and cramp up. The good option was to just enjoy the journey. Sean was cool with it. So, we did.

Yes, it sucked. Yes. It was one of those times when it hurts to walk almost as much as it hurts to run (in those cases, you should generally just run). But, we just alternated jogging and walking as we enjoyed the views that finally came out as the fog burned off. Sean kept me laughing and when there was some stuff we really should run (Upper Sheep- 87.5 to Lower Sheep 92.5), we ran. But mostly, we just talked about how lucky we were (while I also thought- a few times- that I’d be lucky when this was over ha ha ha).

At some point, Sean realized that sun was strong and the few places we had not covered by mud were about to get fried. We had no sunscreen with us, but we both had Chapstick. Chapstick is a pretty good substitute. Good call, Sean.

Between Lower Sheep (92.5) and Tongue River (94.8) Bryan came flying up from behind with Kirby on his heels pacing him. I’d last seen Bryan as I was leaving Footbridge Outbound (30). He looked so good now. He was running so smoothly. My spirits soared. I was so happy for him. He was cruising. I even got motivated for a minute and gave chase. That lasted about 35 steps, and then I was happy to go back to just taking my time to get to the finish. And that’s what we did.

Sean and I walked nearly every step of the last 5 miles on the gravel roads to town. With 2 miles left I pulled out my phone, turned it on, and called Ginger. We chatted for a few minutes, and I got to hear about how things were going back home. Ginger and Paul had a big day hanging out at Eastern Divide (congrats to everyone who ran Eastern Divide this weekend!). Then, Sean and I strolled into town eating popsicles. It was pretty sweet.

I sauntered into the finish line gratefully accepting the cheers of what seemed like the whole town. 33 hours and 11 minutes. 100 miles. 18,000 feet of climbing (or so). The longest it’s taken me to run one of these, and surely the hardest I have worked to cover the distance. All totally worth it.

Not for the buckle. 

I mean It IS sweet a sweet buckle, but adversity is a great teacher. If nothing else, it makes you grateful for the easy lives we lead. I’m certainly ready to focus on running shorter (relatively) races for a while (until next summer at least), but I did reconnect with my love of these grand adventures.

Thank you, Bryan for sharing those first 22 miles and this experience with me. I am so happy for you and proud of you.

Sean and Chris, what can I say? You guys are the most amazing friends and crew anyone can have. I am looking forward to returning the favor. I love you both.

Kirby, it was so fun to have you there. Thanks for taking care of Bryan. Can’t wait to see you again.

Ginger, thank you so much for the love and support and making it possible for me to have these experiences. I miss you and that boy terribly when I’m gone, but I think I return from these journeys a better husband and father. I love you!

Reeve, this is all your fault anyway, so thanks for getting me into all this. When are you going to be dumb enough to do one of these? I. Will. Be. There.

Things you need to know if you’re thinking of doing Big Horn, especially if you’re from the BEAST Coast: 

  • The RD and volunteers are AMAZING! The whole area supports this race. Aid stations were staffed by people from all over the region- even Montana, and they were amazing.
  • Crewing is HARD at Big Horn. I only used crew at Footbridge (30/66). It’s a lot of driving to go anywhere else, and you don’t really need crew elsewhere. The volunteers will take great care of you. Take care of them by not overloading aid stations. You can get by with drop bags no problem and just have crew at Footbridge. It’s a great pacer situation to pick up and swap them there.
  • This is a Hardrock qualifier for a reason. There may be (there was for me) hail, lightning, heat, cold, rain, and lots of mud. Bring all the gear, and don’t leave Footbridge (30) without lights and cold weather gear. Even if you think you’ll get to Jaws (48) before dark. I thought I was a shoe-in to get to JAWS before dark. I was on pace to do so before the mud. I didn’t. I’m glad I was prepared for the reality of what came.
  • If it rains, the course will be a mess. You will lose tons of time in the mud. Run the first half smart but build yourself a cushion in case the course gets bad. Lots of folks got cut off because they were running without any cushion.
  • I thought it’d be a bunch of buff single track since it was a Western Race. Without the mud, it would have been. You can’t count on that, though.
  • The course is beautiful, and the climbs are long, but not too hard. The “wall” (67) leaving Footbridge Inbound was the only climb that was brutal. The rest were super fun.
  • Don’t sweat the altitude. You spend most of the time in the 5-7K foot range, and it acts as a nice governor, but won’t cause most folks problems. I didn’t really feel it at all other than just going a little slower than normal at times.

Gear for those who are interested:

  • Poles. Don’t leave home without them. (Black Diamond Z poles- old aluminum ones)
  • Hoka Speedgoat 2 (Shredded by the mud and in the trash at the end). In hindsight, the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor would have been a better choice.
  • 7 or 8 pairs of socks (Farm to Feet and Smartwool)
  • Shorts (Strider Pro)
  • 2 jackets (Houdini and Salomon)
  • Hat
  • Ultimate direction Vest (AK Mtn Vest 2.0)
  • Gloves
  • More gels than I’m willing to admit publicly. Josh Starner would be amazed. Thanks to Backcountry.com for hooking me up with a care package of gels and Honey Stinger waffles. They were crucial.

Big thanks to all the folks from the Big Horn Trail Run Crew. You guys are awesome!!! 

Link to the Strava data, which is missing some time a little miles because I got behind on charging my watch twice near the end:

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

MMTR 50: All You Need is Proper Motivation.

After getting a solid helping of humble pie at Grindstone 100 in October, I took the opportunity to do some reflecting, and writing that blog post was helpful in terms of finding my way back to why I started running long distances in the mountains in the first place. One change from those early days (North Georgia Adventuring with Reeve during Grad School) that I just can’t shake and don’t want to shake is a desire to have my best result when I do actually enter a race. Running with Jordy, Brett, Pawel, Sean, Rick, and the rest of the BBurg crew (looking at you VT Ultra kiddos and alumni) has motivated me to compete while I’m completing these races. The trick seems to be striking a healthy balance and maintaining a clear focus on the joy of just being “out there” each time.

My first MMTR 50 in 2014 came just six days after running the Marine Corps Marathon. It wasn’t a great recipe for a strong showing, and I managed to finish in a very slow 11:42. That’s always been a bit of a sore spot for me. MMTR is a tough race with a stout elevation profile: 

But, I've always felt that I was capable of running a better time on that course. Getting back to MMTR proved to be a bit of a struggle with other goals keeping me from returning. This year things worked out to return to MMTR. I had all this leftover fitness after the Grindstone DNF and no race to use it. MMTR was still open, Ginger was cool with me leaving town for the night to chase this particular windmill, so I took the chance. Here’s the story:

Rick Burleson and I decided to join forces and work together at MMTR. Rick is completing the BEAST series and he’s in great shape heading into the last bit of that race series. He had an impressive Grindstone and was fit for a good push at MMTR. We had both had some time to reflect on our motivations, and it proved useful for us to spend the day together driving up to the race. We had plenty of time to chat about our recent reflections. Running with Rick was even more useful. We had similar goals: Go out, have fun, be grateful for the chance to spend the day in the mountains, and go as fast and hard as we could. The number 1 motivation was: Enjoy the day and be grateful. The number 2 motivation, for me, was to race myself. I wanted to better my previous race, and truly explore what I was capable of on the course.

Our strategy was pretty simple. Run hard, but smart to Long Mountain/Wayside (mile 26ish), get in and out of the loop with legs to roll, and then burn the ships in the final 15.

Things played out just like that.

We pushed out of the comfort zone that sanity calls for when you have 50 miles on tap for the day in the first few miles of darkness to avoid placing ourselves poorly in the field at the start. I wanted us to be surrounded by people who would push us all day. We ran all of the early climbs and worked to keep the average pace around 10 minutes. Seeing some friendly faces (Leif, Henry, Mike Jones) was a big lift in the early miles.

After rolling through Robinson Gap, we took what the course gave us and bombed the downhills, logging some Sub 7 and Sub 8 miles to put some time in the bank. I’ve been working on descending this year, and that work paid off. My quads didn’t complain at all about the pounding. Rick’s clearly weren’t sad about the pace either as he was pushing me to keep up and just let the miles flow. Mindful of the goal to get to Long Mountain in good shape for the climb to the loop, we did hike some of the ups heading to the Long Mountain aid station. As we cruised down the flat last mile into the AS, we came around the corner to find Brett in a full Gingerbread man costume. Brett cheered us on as we rolled past and hooked up with Jordan, Kristen, Leif, Butchie, Henry, and the rest of the crew. They got us in and out quickly with fresh socks and full bottles to make the climb up to the loop.

Leaving Long Mountain, we encountered a very fast moving Rick Gray. Rick was having himself a DAY. He’s always such a joy to hook up with on the trail. His positive attitude and wealth of knowledge are always a welcome companion. Wanting to get to the loop in good shape, I just hooked up with Rick and tried to stick with him on the long climb. He eventually left me and went on to a great finish (Congrats, buddy! You inspire me).

I had the distance to the loop wrong in my head, so I had to adjust my plans a little on the fly, but things worked out OK, and I rolled into the loop feeling good. Rick Burelson and I got separated here and there but we eventually hooked up and ran the loop together. By then, the rain was pretty steady and the footing was bad. Those miles (33ish-38ish) went slower than I’d hoped. I basically lead a conga line of 8-10 runners through to the punch- talking some smack to Naval Academy guy who said he wanted to be a SEAL. I gave him some good natured ribbing about how that was a bad idea because he’d have to spend all of his pay on hair product, but that’s another story…

I came out of the loop and Jordy and Brett pushed me to just keep moving so I wouldn’t get cold. It was now getting pretty nasty out there, and I’ll admit I was a little tired. But, I was motivated. I was still hoping to somehow claw my way back on pace for a dream sub 9 hour finish. I knew that was basically impossible, but you know how I roll: Aim big.

I pushed the next descent as hard as I could and then settled into a hike on the second to last climb. Sub 9 was slipping away, but I wasn’t worried about it too much. Sub 10 would still be a big PR for me. I hiked the next climb and just focused on trying to get to the last climb and the last single track section feeling good. Here, I ran into a little problem with nutrition. I was cold and didn’t really feel like eating. I didn’t realize that I was calorie short until I took a little spill by kicking rock hiding under the leaves. I was getting a little fuzzy in the head and not picking up my feet. I laughed at myself and ate a gel. I pushed myself to run again and the same thing happened about 30 minutes later. This time, I ate 2 gels, popped in my headphones and decided it was time to go big or go home.

 Once I knew I had less than 5 to go, I just ran as hard as I could. I knew the last 3 miles were downhill and it was time to stop looking at my watch and just run. So, that’s what I did. With 4 to go, all the miles were sub 10. I realized at this point that if I just ran as hard as I could I could finish in under 9:42, which would be a 2 hour PR on the course. So, I just kicked it.

On the final descent, I saw Brett and Henry. They were out on the course letting folks know how far it was to the finish. Brett said: 1.4 to go. I emptied the tank. Mile 49 was 7:05. I was cranking. I had passed two people in the last few miles and now I had 5 more in my sights. Alas, they were too far up the road, and I ran out of course. I finished 47th overall at 9:41 flat.

I could not be happier. Can't you tell? 

First of all, I had been seeded 224 out of a field of 279 runners. Beating my seed by that many places is a point of pride for me. More importantly, though, I managed to race all 50 miles and still remain focused on having fun. Sure, a lot of it was Type 2 fun, but it was fun. Jordy had told me that having fun and trying to go sub 9 were probably mutually exclusive goals. And he was right. But only kind of right. The fun for me still rests solidly in trying to do things that are really hard. If I have an audacious time goal to push for, it’s more fun even if I don’t reach it.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend the day in the mountains with my friends. And I couldn't have done it without this crew: 

I’m even more grateful that I have a hobby that lets me push myself and keep learning about how to be a better runner and a better person. Running teaches me both because of the shining examples of friendship, support, and joy that I get to see every time I go “out there” and explore. Thanks to Clark Zealand for putting on another great race. I appreciate the hard work he puts into his races and the support of all the amazing volunteers. 

Thanks for all the support and encouragement. It feels good to end the running year on a high note. I’m looking forward to having some down time. I am really looking forward to hanging out with PT and supporting Ginger as she runs the Richmond marathon this weekend. She’s going to rock it out!